In the weak afternoon sunshine of late September 2014, I fingered my British passport at the top of the Flathead Valley before rolling down towards the US border at Eureka, Montana.
After three days alone in the only uninhabited valley of southern Canada, I was looking forward to some human interaction with the border guard. At the very least I hoped my dishevelled appearance and curious form of transport might raise some eyebrows and I could smooth my way into the country with smiles and anecdotes about my journey, as I had done so many times before in Latin America. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be.
“Have a nice stay,” said the man behind the dark sunglasses before handing back my passport and turning away.
It wasn’t the first time I had ever entered the US. But this time I was dirty, unemployed and carried my home on my bicycle. None of this however was questioned. Instead, the freak of my birth country and the current spin of geopolitics, was seemingly sufficient proof of the quality of my character and the unchecked contents of my scruffy panniers. You are British, was the message. Your white skin, common language and the wet cross drawn on your infant head gives us nothing to fear. You are one of us. Riding on to Eureka through the empty plains and somber evening mountains near the US border, I admit it though. I didn’t really feel too American. I felt a long way from the edge of my own distant village, where everything was safe and familiar.
That night I’d hoped to stay for the first time in my life with an American family, and had received an invitation back in Banff to come and stay at a Warmshowers bike host in Eureka. Yet after a two day delay in a snow storm on the Alberta border with British Columbia, I sent an apologetic email explaining I wouldn’t be able to make it after all. An email was fired back however, “we’ll see you when we see you.” And so so I cycled on through the dusky streets of Eureka, past clapboard houses and a man burning rubbish in the street. What kind of hospitality, I wondered, would I find in this brave new country?
The well-appointed home stood out from its neighbors as I pedaled the last few strokes up the hill. Louise casually let me in, showing me where to park the bike so I wouldn’t get mown down by the soon to return Hummer belonging to Marshall her husband. Whilst eating the simple and delicious plate of salmon and rice offered, I learnt how as well as working as a family practitioner doctor, Louise and her family host up to 150 cyclists a season at this busy cycling crossroads of Trans-America and The Great Divide. The single criteria for sleeping under this family’s roof was ownership of a bicycle.
For the next two hours I tip-toed around the spacious ground floor, examining artefacts, trying to work her partner Marshall out. I found a selection of wall mounted bullets, sea shells and a shelf of well thumbed books in a place where you might otherwise have installed a television. There was a flicker of a stereotype here, but it didn’t all quite fit.
“Imbeciles. IMBECILES” were the first words I heard from the man of this American house.
These imbeciles, I would shortly learn after Marshall’s Hummer came powering into the downstairs garage, were the people who had disagreed with him that evening at the City Hall. As he climbed the stairs, his great rage and physical presence threatened to swallow up the wooden house. After a minute or so of cursing to the walls, the ceiling and at the dog (Louise had made herself scarce) I decided now was the time to introduce myself, in my most polite, and rather high-pitched English accent. “Hello, I am Matt.” With a bone rearranging handshake he greeted me gruffly before retreating to the kitchen and serving himself a bucket sized tumbler of red wine. Marshall’s show, it seemed, was now over.
For the next 36 hours, Marshall and I jammed our alien lives together, trying make sense of how the other one lived. The bullets were indeed for a favored handgun. As a vegetarian, bicycle riding Brit, from a country where not even the police carry firearms, these both terrified and fascinated me. The sea shells belonged to a small quietly spoken daughter. Running her hands through a Tupperware box of black beans, scrunched up parcel paper and these lovely sea creatures, the six year old child invited both Marshall and I to examine them. “They make you feel relaxed,” she smiled. The books on the shelves proved to be a curious mixture of exotic travel guides, American hiking compendiums alongside weighty texts on krav maga. Without the dampening presence of television, we talked late into the evenings, opening several bottles of wine. We talked about gun laws, we talked about travel and we talked about the culture and people of my fiance’s Latin American country of Chile.
I didn’t agree with everything Marshall had to say. And there was a lot about my own lifestyle and way of thinking that troubled him as well. Marshall hadn’t welcomed me in with anything like the disinterest of the boarder guard. Instead, greeting me with roaring emotion, and justifiable suspicion. By being brave enough to open his home however, he created an opportunity for us both to run our hands through that calming shell box, to share our separate worlds and to quieten the fear of the stranger at the door.
The names in this post have been changed.
Call for comment
- Ever had an interesting experience with a Warmshowers’ host?
- Have plans to ride beyond the edge of your own village? What are your expectations for what you will find?
Next Month Joe Grant Interview: Self Propelled